samphire

In learning about the native plant that botanists categorize as Sarcocornia (previously Salicornia) pacifica recently, I noticed that a couple of its vernacular names are Pacific swampfire and Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire would have arisen as a faster, simpler pronunciation of swampfire.

So much for hypotheses: once I investigated, I found I had things backwards, because swampfire arose as a folk-etymological recasting of the opaque samphire. I had gotten it partly right, though, because samphire did come about as a phonetically recast English version of the French name Saint Pierre. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the name, which originally applied to a Eurasian plant (hence the qualifier Pacific swampfire), came “from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).”

The connections to Spanish, of course, are that French saint is Spanish santo (both from Latin sanctus ‘holy’), and French pierre is Spanish piedra (both from Latin petra, taken from Greek petrā ‘cliff, rock’). Relatives of the former include santificar/sanctify and santurrón/sanctimonious. Relatives of the latter include petrificar/petrify and petróleo/petroleum (literally ‘rock oil’).

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Two haves that look like have-nots

Just about everyone recognizes the first part of the English word malady. It comes from Latin male, which meant the same as its Spanish descendant mal ‘badly.’ The second part of malady, which English took from Old French, remains opaque. If we trace the compound back to Latin, we find it began as the two-word phrase male habitus ‘badly held,’ whose second element is the past participle of habēre, the ancestor of Spanish haber ‘to have.’

In the case of the English adjective able, but the loss of an initial h- in Old French, which is where English acquired the word, ended up concealing the word’s origin in Latin habilis, whose meanings were ‘that may be easily handled or managed, manageable, suitable, fit, proper, apt, expert, light, nimble, swift.’ The ‘handled’ sense shows that the Romans created habilis from habēre ‘to have, hold, possess, handle.’ In another instance of Seeing Isn’t Believing, the Latin adjective suffix -abilis is unrelated.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

nuestro

Last time, with heavy doses of nosism, I wrote about nos, which in Latin meant ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and in Spanish means ‘us’ and ‘to us.’ The corresponding Latin adjective was noster ‘our,’ with stem nostr-, which developed into Spanish nuestro. Beginning in the Renaissance, pharmacists sometimes placed the neuter Latin nostrum ‘ours’ on bottles of medicine, as if to say “This is our home remedy.” That’s the origin of nostrum as an English term for ‘a medicine whose ingredients are kept secret,’ and then more generally for ‘any sort of product or scheme that is less than reputable.’ The French cognate of Spanish nuestro is notre, which lost its s by the same process that has led some modern varieties of Spanish to turn nuestro into nuehtro and then nuetro. We recognize French Notre Dame ‘Our Lady’ as the name of a famous Gothic cathedral in Paris and also of a Catholic university in Indiana.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the underlying Indo-European root was *nes-, whose suffixed adjectival form *ns-ero‑ gave rise not only to Latin noster but also to Germanic *unsara‑. With the loss of the -n-, that became Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre, the ancestor of our our (for those of us who are native English speakers).

©2017 Steven Schwartzman

Make good grades and you’ll graduate with a degree

The Spanish noun grado has various meanings, including those that can be translated into English with the related words grade and the French-derived degree. All go back to Latin gradus, a noun that meant ‘step, pace, gait, walk,’ from the verb gradī ‘to step, walk, go, advance.’ Other words we’ve borrowed from that source are the ingrediente/ingredient that ‘goes into’ a recipe; the retrógrado/retrograde that applies to something ‘moving backward’; the graduar/graduate which one does upon taking all the steps required to complete a course of study, typically in a process described as gradual.

One other related word is the temperature scale named centígrado/centigrade for the separation of a hundred grados/degrees between the freezing and boiling points of water. Also known as the Celsius scale, it stands in contrast to the Fahrenheit scale still predominantly used in the retrograde United States. And with respect to that, let me point out a curiosity that I discovered a couple of years ago, namely that in two instances a temperature in one system can be converted to its counterpart in the other (rounded to the nearest whole degree) merely by switching the digits:

16°C = 61°F and 28°C = 82°F.

Armed with that precious knowledge, you can now graduate to being the life of the party.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

mitón

In Spanish a mitón is ‘a type of glove that leaves the extremities of the fingers exposed.’ Gloves of that sort are helpful for people who want some protection from the elements but who need to maintain the dexterity that fingertips provide. (One sort of wearer that comes to mind is a nature photographer in winter.)

The fact that a mitón is a kind of glove makes an English speaker think of the word mitten, even if a mitten fully covers a hand. Might there nevertheless be a connection between the two words? It turns out that Spanish took its word straight from French miton (French stresses an isolated word on its last syllable, by the way), so we have turn Gallic for a bit. French miton was based on the Old French mite that meant ‘glove’ and that generated, with a different suffix, the mitaine that means the same as Spanish mitón. English borrowed mitaine as mitten, whose sense shifted to that of a glove that still dealt with different parts of the hand in distinct ways, but now with the distinction being between the thumb and the other four fingers collectively.

Many etymologists assume that the French mite which by itself and through its derivatives referred to gloves is the same mite that French-speaking children use as an alternate name for a cat, the idea being that a glove or mitten is as soft as a cat’s fur.

English mitt, by the way, arose as a shortened form of mitten.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Remembering subvenir

The infrequently encountered Spanish verb subvenir, borrowed from Latin, means ‘to come to the aid of, to support.’ The word is a compound of Latin sub, in its sense of ‘up from under,’ and venīre, the forerunner of Spanish venir ‘to come.’ Most native English speakers would say there’s no such English verb as subvene. There is, but it’s uncommon, and not a lot of current English dictionaries include it. One that does is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which notes the verb is rare and defines it as ‘to happen or come, so as to help.’ A little more common is the derived noun subvención/subvention; that’s the ‘subsidy’ that one entity, usually a government, gives to another to support it. (Notice again the ‘up from under’ sense conveyed by sub- in the subsidy and support that prop something up.)

The French development of Latin subvenīre is the verb souvenir, in which something comes up from the storehouse of our mind into our consciousness; in other words, souvenir means ‘to remember.’ As a noun, a souvenir is something we take or buy in order to remember a place. Like English, Spanish has borrowed the French noun souvenir, but normally Spanish speakers use the native recuerdo, which is etymologically ‘something that brings a person or place back (re-) into our heart (cor[azón].’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

blando

The Latin adjective blandus meant ‘of a smooth tongue, flattering, fawning, caressing,’ senses that continued on into the Latin verb blandīrī, the source of French blandir and from it the English blandish that means ‘to coax, cajole, flatter mildly as a means to get someone to do something.’ Spanish lacks a descendant of that verb but has carried over blandus as blando, though with a shift in meaning from the Latin original. The DRAE gives these senses for blando:

Que cede fácilmente a la presión del tacto. [Easily yielding to the touch, i.e. soft.]

Suave, benigno, apacible. [Soft, benign, even-tempered, placid, mild.]

Dicho de una persona: Pusilánime, de carácter débil. [Said of a person: pusillanimous, having a weak character.]

The English adjective bland has also changed from the original Latin blandus that it was borrowed from. The 1913 Webster’s gave this as its first definition: ‘Having soft and soothing qualities; not drastic or irritating; not stimulating; as, a bland oil; a bland diet.’ The dictionary’s second definition was ‘Mild; soft; gentle; smooth and soothing in manner; suave; as, a bland temper; bland persuasion; a bland sycophant.’ In the century since then, bland has turned more negative. Recent senses of the word include: ‘uninteresting, insipid, boring.’

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

precio

Precio, the Spanish word for ‘price,’ evolved directly from the synonymous Latin noun pretium. It’s natural to assume that English price traces back to the same Latin source, and so it does, via the intermediary of Old French pris. There’s a surprise, though, in the form of an English doublet, praise. Middle English preise was based on the Old French verb preisier, which developed from Late Latin pretiāre ‘to prize,’ which had been coined on the root of pretium. To praise, then, is etymologically to attach a price to something as a token of its worth. But wait: prize itself came into being as a variant of Old French pris, so we’re really dealing with English triplets. Praise be to etymology.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Punning around

Yesterday shoreacres brought to my attention an article which included the contention that “There’s not even a word for pun in Spanish….” That’s a punny contention to make because Spanish has several words that convey that notion of ‘a pun, a play on words.’ One is retruécano, formed from re- and the root of the verb trocar ‘to swap, exchange, trade, confuse.’ Unfortunately for this blog, not only is trocar of obscure origin, but it’s also a word for which I’ve found has no connection to anything in English. Strike one.

In Mexican Spanish, albur is another word for ‘pun,’ but it’s of Arabic origin and also seems not to have any English relatives. Strike two.

A third word for ‘pun’ is calambur, which is a Spanish respelling of French calembour. That French word, like Spanish trocar, is of uncertain origin, but at least there’s a connection to English: the Collins English Dictionary includes calembour and defines it as ‘a pun.’ That said, when I searched online I found few uses of calembour in English-language texts. At least there seems little likelihood that calembour will become a calembore through overuse. I’d better stop there because I wouldn’t want to turn into a calemboor.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

And still palpitating

The last post looked at some words derived from Latin palpare, which meant ‘to stroke, touch softly, pat.’ From palpare the Romans themselves created the frequentative palpitare, with meanings that included ‘to move frequently and quickly, to tremble, throb, pant,’ and ultimately ‘to palpitar/palpitate.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave as senses of the modern verb ‘to beat rapidly and more strongly than usual; to throb; to bound with emotion or exertion; to pulsate violently; to flutter.’ In 1828 Noah Webster had given this wonderful definition: ‘To beat gently; to beat, as the heart; to flutter, that is, to move with little throws; as we say, to go pit a pat; applied particularly to a preternatural or excited movement of the heart.’

Ah, to go pit a pat, especially when experiencing a preternatural or excited movement of the heart! Just the stuff of operas, whose Italian lyrics seem preternaturally full of the verb palpitar. For example, in the aria “M’apparì,” or “She appeared to me,” from Flotow’s Martha, we find in the Italian version of the German original:

Il pensier di poter palpitar con lei d’amor,
Può sopir il martir che m’affana e strazia il cor….

The thought of being able to “palpitate” with her in love
Can soften the torture that wracks me and torments my heart….

Standing in contrast to those stilted lyrics are the opening lines of Paul Valéry’s great poem “Le Cimetière marin,” “The Seaside Cemetery”:

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes….

Este techo tranquilo, donde andan [unas] palomas,
Entre los pinos palpita, entre las tumbas….

This tranquil roof, on which pigeons are walking,
Palpitates among the pines, among the tombs….

And in contrast to both of those is the type of pathological palpitación/palpitation that doctors talk about, and that is ‘a rapid and irregular heartbeat’ not caused, except in rare cases, by love and its attendant passions.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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